Bowker jumps ship after another wrecking operation

I have always found it extraordinary that people on big salaries who get sacked for incompetence or resign after making a fundamental error, always seem to be rewarded with another job, often at much the same salary. The obvious example is football managers. Most clubs are run by retreads, people who have been found wanting elsewhere and yet somehow fetch up elsewhere few months later at another one, ready to dash the hopes and dreams of another set of supporters. As I write, it seems that Charlton cast off Alan Pardew has turned up at Southampton and already my beloved QPR has just landed themselves Jim Magilton whose record at Ipswich was pretty ordinary.
Nevertheless, I give Magilton all my best wishes, which I hesitate about offering to that perennial poor performer in the rail industry, Richard Bowker, who has just left the sinking ship of National Express after having gone down with his last vessel, the Strategic Rail Authority. Bowker blew it in both places after having worked at Virgin where he negotiated the deal that broke Railtrack, the Passenger Upgrade 2 contract which was supposed to deliver a 140 mph railway even though no one had quite checked out whether the signalling technology was available.
When he was head of the Strategic Rail Authority, in early 2003 Bowker allowed the government to claw back £242m, about 12 per cent of its budget, as it sought to make cuts to the ever soaring rail budget. It was a political mugging that a more experienced operator than Bowker would never have allowed to happen.
Bowker was the golden boy at the time, having been headhunted by Stephen Byers, the transport secretary who found himself out of a job soon after appointing Bowker over a series of gaffers. It was his replacement, Alistair Darling, a man of limited imagination (actually, none – ed) who was only ever interested in the cost of anything, not its value, who reined in the SRA’s budget. However, had Bowker squealed at the time, and threatened to resign, the cuts which were deeply damaging as they were made on the SRA’s most popular programmes such as small scale improvements and freight grants, would have to be rescinded. It was a very difficult time for transport ministers as the railway was still suffering the after effects of the Hatfield train crash. The SRA had lost its previous director, the brilliant but combative Sir Alistair Morton who had described the railways as having a ‘collective nervous breakdown’ and had it its successor departed in high dudgeon, the whole credibility of the government’s rail policy would have been put into question.
Darling had clearly banked on the fact that Bowker was too naïve about the ways of Whitehall to stand up to ministers now that Byers, who had appointed him, was no longer in government. Bowker played it safe and made the cuts, attracting widespread criticism within the industry and his authority, and the reputation of the SRA were fatally undermined.
The SRA never recovered, despite some achievements such as Bowker’s success in sorting out two fiascos, the West Coast Main Line refurbishment and the power upgrade in the South. He suffered, though, from failing to establish the purpose of the franchising regime and from his tendency to spend millions on consultants for no good reason. The SRA had become a bloated bureaucracy and when it came to a choice between abolishing it or the Office of Rail Regulation, led by the far cannier Tom Winsor with whom Bowker had numerous falling outs, there was no question as to who would come out the loser.
One might have thought that Bowker, who was paid more than £1m per year at National Express, had learnt his lesson in dealing with Whitehall officials but clearly not since he made two crucial mistakes. First, he negotiated a contract that was predicated on the boom going on forever, something that a man of his experience should have realised had never happened before. The contract he negotiated with the government for the East Coast franchise was based on revenue growth of around 10 per cent, something historically the railway has only ever achieved in its best years. So although National Express’s predecessors, GNER, had gone handed back the keys because it could not meet its £1.3bn payments, Bowker bid £1.4bn.
Then he compounded the mistake by playing the hard man when trying to get out of the contract. Rather than admitting that he had overbid and that National Express was in a pickle, he went round the Department for Transport, and indeed No 10, with a begging bowl the size of a small lake, arguing that none of it was his fault because no one could have foreseen there would be a recession.
But he got nowhere. He fatally undermined his case, however, when he admitted that actually passenger numbers had not fallen very much, if at all, but the problem was that they had been deserting first class in droves, costing the company vast amounts in revenue. Nor did his desperate measures of charging £2 50 for seat reservations and cutting catering that the Department believed had been a franchise commitment go down well with the officials and indeed ministers.
Bowker tried to argue that if National Express were not rescued, the whole franchising system would go down with him. In fact, the opposite was the case. The other train operators were watching very carefully and, indeed, some of them were urging the Department not to give into National Express.
It was an unedifying performance. One told me that ‘he had got everyone’s backs up and hardened our resolve’. Lord Adonis, the transport secretary, refused to be bullied by all the bluster and Bowker’s fate, as well as that of National Express, was sealed.
Bowker has now gone off to build railways in the United Arab Emirates, having clearly sought out a job while still at National Express, knowing that his days would be numbered because of the East Coast fiasco. For his sake, he must learn quickly to get on better with the sheikhs than with the mandarins, or he will be making a swift return to these shores.